One bad debate performance is by no means a game-changer for a candidate like Joe Biden, with his near-universal name ID, his vast reservoir of goodwill among Democrats, and his presumed general-election strength against Donald Trump. And I’m not going to predict any sort of swoon for his candidacy, having underestimated the durability of his support before.
But it’s not so much how poorly he did in the first round of debates as how he did poorly that should alarm his camp. He brought three basic vulnerabilities into this phase of the 2020 campaign: (1) his age (which most of his supporters may not really comprehend) and the associated impression that he’s not up to job and perhaps is just living in the past; (2) his possible complacency as the early front-runner; and (3) his heavy dependence on African-American voters for his current lead, and his clear vulnerability on his record on racially sensitive issues. All of these vulnerabilities were exposed in the Miami debate, and his rivals along with Biden critics in the activist community and the news media may now smell blood in the water in ways that could compound the damage.
The man on the stage tonight barely resembled the confident and dextrous debater who handled Sarah Palin in 2008 or Paul Ryan in 2012. In nearly every answer, he fumbled one or more words. At one point, he cut himself off in mid-sentence without being prompted by the moderators. Even his closing statement was awkward. He seemed to have to remind himself more than halfway through the debate to mention Barack Obama, his chief political asset, by name.
Yes, he took a lot of attacks from other candidates, and it’s not like he had a Rick Perry 2012 kind of disaster, at all. But if he had no truly terrible moments, he had too many not-so-good moments that reinforced the impression that he’s lost a step or two or three. It happens to most septuagenarians, but it can’t happen a lot to a politician who is auditioning for a chance to take on a supremely unscrupulous Donald J. Trump. I joked privately not too long ago that if Biden gave him the chance, Trump would probably change his nickname from “Sleepy Joe” to “Sloppy Joe.” That seems inevitable now:
Biden did not just seem old and off-balance but also ill-prepared, which is a classic sign of complacency. Challenged on his support for the Iraq War by Bernie Sanders — a criticism he must have dealt with a thousand times over the years — he initially fell into a word salad. Why wasn’t he prepared? And while the direct and personal nature of Kamala Harris’s challenge to his anti-busing history may have surprised him, the general line of attack on him for his past record on busing — and his more recent habit of nostalgically remembering his friendships with racists — was totally predictable. But as my colleague Olivia Nuzzi reported during the debate, Biden’s people may have been more shocked than anyone else.
Then there’s the impact this debate might have on Biden’s potential Achilles’ heel in the primaries: African-American voters. Like Hillary Clinton in the early stages of the 2008 nominating contest, he’s riding high in that demographic right now. And like her, Biden is vulnerable to a viable young African-American challenger in the early state of South Carolina and in subsequent southern and urban states in which black voters are a large (and in some states a majority) portion of the primary electorate. Totally aside from the substantive impact of Harris’s challenge to Biden’s record on school busing and racial justice generally, it’s not good for the former veep that two of the strongest performers in the first round of debates have been Harris and Cory Booker, who represent a generational and a racial contrast to him. They are both gunning for Biden in South Carolina, and if one or both begins to carve into his African-American support, he’s in serious trouble.
Yes, of course, I could again be underestimating Biden’s strength, and of course he can recover. But these perceptions were broadly shared not only among dispassionate political observers but among those watching Biden with bad intent. In the weeks and months just ahead, he will be challenged at all his vulnerable points again and again. And to stanch the bleeding and repel the sharks it will attract, he will need to display more skill and sheer with-it-ness than he did in Miami.